I overheard a conversation on the street the other day.  One woman said to another woman, “She’s so lucky.  Married 40 years and he never cheated on her.”  The other woman sighed as if she’d been passionately kissed.  I wondered why never cheating was something to celebrate instead of something to expect.  When we begin to admire expected, ordinary, behavior and label it “extraordinary” by inference or by honor — we’re on the short path to the dissolution of civilization where every act and deed is heroic and deserving.  The “expected incorruptible” reminded of the story of Monica Brown I recently watched on 60 Minutes.  Pvt. Brown was the second woman in USA history to be awarded the Silver Star. 


Brown was the only medic with her detail on the day of her reckoning:

Brown’s instincts kicked in with bullets whizzing by and mortars exploding around her. This young woman, who was not even supposed to be in front line combat, threw her body over the wounded paratroopers to protect them. “It was an uncontrollable situation,” she remembers. “And I just dove over Spray, ’cause Spray can’t defend himself. It’s not like he can go anywhere to take cover. So, I dove over him. Make sure he didn’t get any shrapnel or anything from it.”

Then, while still under fire, Santos and Brown dragged the injured men into a pick-up truck. Brown once again covered them with her body as Santos drove them to an area where they could be treated.

“At first, I thought that Smith was the most critical. Because, you know, he had a laceration on his forehead. And it was pretty deep. And I didn’t know if he had any brain injury,” Brown says.

Michael Green, Brown’s sergeant major with the 82nd Airborne Division, and Colonel Martin Schweitzer, her former brigade commander, both recommended her for the Silver Star.

“We asked Specialist, then Private Brown, you know, ‘Why’d you do it?’ Just tryin’ to get inside her psyche that, you know, she put herself in that kind of risk,” Col. Schweitzer remembers.

Asked what she said, Schweitzer says, “Her answer was just plain as day, and looked at me and Sergeant Major like we were crazy to even ask that question. And she said, ‘It’s my job.’ And it’s just powerful, powerful.”

Is “doing your job” enough of a reason to award a Silver Star?
Here’s is the criteria for the medal:

The Silver Star is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

Smith and Spray — the two men Brown saved — refused to be interviewed by 60 Minutes because they do not feel women belong “on the front line” — even though there is no front line in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Other men in her company did not think she acted extraordinarily. In fact, one solder damned her with faint praise using gender bias and age inequality as thresholds of excellence:

“People ask, you know, like, ‘Was she a superhero? Did she do anything, you know, super woman, super heroic?’ No, she did her job,” Best says. “And she did a very, very good job doing it. Now, that fact that she was 18 and, you know, a female and all, you know, that adds something to it.”

What do you think?

Did Monica Brown earn her Silver Star?

Or was she unjustly awarded the medal just because of her age and gender?

18 Comments

  1. I’d like to focus on the age.
    When one is young, one (in theory) has many years ahead, and so to do something that risks ones life to save another at 18 seems fundamentally different than doing the same at 88. I might be wrong but it just seems that way to me. 🙂

    and, you know, a female and all

    That’s just plain gender bias.

  2. Hi David,
    I think the most amazing thing in that story is that someone who has been in the army long enough to be a Colonel doesn’t understand why someone would do something like that during a time like that. Perhaps he has no personal field experience.
    As for Smith and Spray, their male pride is perhaps too hurt by the fact that their lives were saved by a woman for them to acknowledge it on national television.
    I don’t believe it’s not a good idea to reward her with a Silver Star. During combat, they say, you trust your life in the hands of your friends and you expect them to put their lives in yours. To reward it makes it something that is above and beyond expectation and can damage the spirit of the corps.

  3. Hi! I started reading your blog about a little while ago, you have a unique take on things. It certainly sounds like age and gender played some role in Ms Brown’s award, but it’s sort of hard to tell without knowing what kind of things other people have done that have earned them silver stars. I also wonder if this was part of a long pattern of exemplary behavior- did her superiors recommend her because this was one incident out of many?
    Aside from this specific case, I think you’ve hit on something that can be very damaging to any under-represented group. By celebrating every woman who achieves anything, you risk focusing too much on the challenges that women face. It’s a delicate balance- it can sound condescending and paternalistic if the focus is more on the barriers someone has overcome rather then their own achievements, but ignoring these barriers means nothing will done about them. Of course she shouldn’t be given an award just because of her gender; but I think we should remember that she has faced challenges that male soldiers don’t.

  4. I would turn it around and ask how many men of a similar age have been awarded the silver star for similar actions?
    Once I had that answer I could look at both the age and the gender factor.

  5. Gordon —
    Why do you think the Army will take an 18-year-old, but we won’t let them drink until they turn 21? The Army wants the wild recklessness of an immature mind that they can mold and turn into a killing machine. Young people think they’re immortal and it is that very folly that the military rely on when they send the infantry into battle. Older people know the wages of war.
    Does that mean younger people are less “heroic” in battle than older folks based on experience and prescience when it comes to performing the same “heroic” deed? I would tend to think that is necessarily so.

  6. I agree, David. Years of knowledge will lead to making the correct choice for older whereas a lot of the time, it is “dumb luck” that leads to the youthful success.
    I think it won’t be too long before the drinking age goes down. People who want to drink do it regardless of the age check and some do it just because they are being told they can’t.

  7. Dananjay —
    The way the interview with the Colonel came off on television felt like it wasn’t that he was shocked that a solider would be heroic — he was shocked that a woman soldier would be heroic even though she was just doing her job.
    I think the two guys she saved were a little taken aback by all the attention she was getting for just being a medic and saving their lives. They are irreparably wounded while she earned the Silver Star. The feeling I had from their statement is that they don’t want to be attached to her story which, they fear, was more a political ploy by the Bush administration to make history than an honest earning of the medal.
    It does seem a little strange that she was a medic, she saved lives, and she was given a medal for doing her duty.

  8. liminallife —
    Audie Murphy won many medals during WWII. Here are his two Silver Star citations:

    AUDIE L. MURPHY, 01 692 509, First Lieutenant (then Staff Sergeant), Infantry, Company “B”, 15th Infantry Regiment. For gallantry in action. On the morning of 2 October 1944, near CLEURIE QUARRY, France, First Lieutenant MURPHY inched his way over rugged, uneven terrain, toward an enemy machine gun which had surprised a group of officers on reconnaissance. Getting to within fifteen yards of the German gun, First Lieutenant MURPHY stood up and, disregarding a burst of enemy fire delivered at such close range and which miraculously missed him, flung two hand grenandes into the machine gun position, killing four Germans, wounding three more and destroying the position.
    AUDIE L. MURPHY, 01 692 509, First Lieutenant (then Staff Sergeant), Infantry, Company “B”, 15th Infantry Regiment. For gallantry in action. On the afternoon of 5 October 1944 near LE THOLY, France, First Lieutenant MURPHY, carrying an SCR 536 radio, crawled fifty yards under severe enemy machine gun and rifle fire, to a point 200 yards from strongly entrenched enemy who had prevented further advance. Despite machine gun and rifle bullets that hit as close as a foot to him, First Lieutenant MURPHY directed artillery fire upon enemy positions for an hour, killing fifteen Germans and inflicting approximately thirty-five additional casualties. His courage, audacity and accuracy enabled his company to advance and attain its objective. Residence: Greenville, Texas.

    http://www.audiemurphy.com/award3.htm
    Here’s how he won the Medal of Honor:

    2d Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by 6 tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to prepared positions in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, 1 of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from 3 sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.

    http://www.audiemurphy.com/citation.htm
    Here’s the story of the first woman since WWII to win the Silver Star. Does this compare with Pvt. Brown’s heroics?

    Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester fought her way through an enemy ambush south of Baghdad, killing three insurgents with her M-4 rifle to save fellow soldiers’ lives — and yesterday became the first woman since World War II to win the Silver Star medal for valor in combat.
    After insurgents hit the convoy with a barrage of fire from machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Hester “maneuvered her team through the kill zone into a flanking position where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M203 rounds,” according to the Army citation accompanying the Silver Star.
    “She then cleared two trenches with her squad leader where she engaged and eliminated three AIF [anti-Iraqi forces] with her M4 rifle. Her actions saved the lives of numerous convoy members,” the citation stated.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/16/AR2005061601551.html
    Pvt. Brown’s experience was one of the first she had in Iraq. I think she had just arrived on scene and was out on her first run when they got hit. I believe it was because she was so green and so instinctually “heroic” that caused her deeds to get such rapt attention.
    I agree we need to be careful when we give majority awards to minority representatives because there can always be the stench of being undeserving. That’s why, if Pvt. Brown really believe what she said — she was just doing her job — she should’ve thanked them for the Silver Star and then refused to accept it for doing her ordinary duty. That would’ve made her an immeasurable hero forever.

  9. David,
    That Colonel seems to be from a completely different era! Reminds me of that Indian Army veteran I met on a train once!
    What history does the Bush administration hope to make by giving away this medal?

  10. Dananjay —
    Women are currently forbidden from serving in combat. The military gets around that ban by temporarily “attaching” them to patrols.
    The problem with women not serving “in combat” is what does that mean? So far, 109 women soldiers have been killed in Iraq. How is that possible if they are supposed to be on non-combat duty?
    http://icasualties.org/oif/female.aspx
    By giving the fallen women medals and honors, the Bush administration is slowly easing the way, I believe, to officially enroll women in combat roles and a sort of warped attempt to make proper history in the light of Clinton and Palin.

  11. I agree, David, for her to have refused the token medal would have been a far more honourable thing to do and would have done much for the cause of reform in the Army.

  12. Hi David,
    I think Jessica as an 18 year old Jeassica is too immature to take a decision on refusing the medal even.
    This incident reminded me of a movie – “Courage Under Fire” – a pretty mainstream film on war and awarding a medal and all, but worth watching.